Cyberspace: Whose Space? Looking Back at Media and Technology in 2014

By Hana Shaltout

“The crisis of modernity is, for feminists, not a melancholy plunge into loss and decline, but rather the joyful opening up of new possibilities.”

“Thus, while the computer technology seems to promise a world beyond gender differences, the gender gap grows wider.”

— Rosi Braidotti


I am writing this blog post as an experiment. As indicated in the first two quotes, feminist attitudes towards the internet and computer technology are contradictory at worst and ambiguous at best. Both quotes were in the academic article “Feminism with a Difference,” by Rosi Braidotti: a testament to the opposing viewpoints that take place in debates about the cyberworld.  In the last two weeks of my ‘Gender and Media Representation’ course, I came across several articles and scholarly pieces that addressed the relationship between feminism and new media. Mostly, they discuss how diverse the cyberspace is, however, for the most part, it was agreed that it is a “boys’ club” as Anita Sarkeesian astutely commented in her Tedx Talk. The experiment therefore is to see whether I — an Egyptian MSc student living in London — would be able to post something online which could bring about any kind of change. I want to understand which of the two quotes above is more truthful today, and reflect on them as we come to the end of 2014. Furthermore, I want to understand whether I have any legitimacy and, if I do, what kind of legitimacy it is, and why. To help me understand my own position on the Internet, I’m going to refer to other blog posts as well as the article “Feminism with a Difference” by Rosi Braidotti.

 To begin with, what is cyberspace? Because this is not an academic article as such, I’m going to use my own definition here (please feel free to modify/comment/ suggest etc.) and say that cyberspace is like the movie Tron (the “new”  one with the cool Daft Punk Soundtrack): a world where you can create your own identity, hide it, or refashion it; where you can game, speak, vlog, create, write, communicate, and interact with millions of people around the world.  The problem with this definition is that it is a utopian one — one where I assume that the digital world is neutral, fair and equal and exists outside the parameters of our own, “real”, world. (If you haven’t already read ‘Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,’ give it a read here.)

The first quote I gave you at the top of this blog piece shows how cyberspace can be a space for anyone, while the second brings us back to the reality of the Internet. Rosi Braidotti further comments:

“It consequently seems to me that, in the short range, this new technological frontier will intensify the gender gap and increase the polarisation between the sexes. We are back to the war metaphor, but its location is the real world, not the hyperspace of abstract masculinity. And its protagonists are no computer images, but the real social agents of postindustrial urban landscapes. The most effective strategy remains for women to use technology in order to disengage our collective imagination from the phallus and its accessory values: money, exclusion and domination, nationalism, iconic femininity and systematic violence.”

My question is, how can I “disengage”, and whether this disengagement is effective through the Internet. What kind of thing can I say or do that will allow me to effectively challenge patriarchy through my writing? Because 2014 has just ended, I will reflect on three gender issues that relate to media and technology, very briefly, and examine whether me talking about them is likely to bring about a change.

Firstly, we have witnessed new heights of technology in its power over the female body, specifically reproduction. It can be summed up by Foucault’s term biopower, which, in a word, is the control and discipline over bodies. An example of this was seen last year when Apple revealed its plans to offer egg-freezing to their female employees.

For those who are not familiar with Anita Sarkeesian, she is an activist whose main channel of campaigning is YouTube and the website Feminist Frequency. She is very vocal about how female characters are represented and portrayed in the gaming world, however she also raises those issues about popular culture more generally. Unfortunately, she is still facing threats two years after her Tedx Talk video was released.

Finally, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign was one of the biggest media campaigns of the year after Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria. Despite the fact that the hashtag and campaign went viral, the girls are still missing.

These three reflections on 2014 raise intriguing questions about the power of media and technology, not just in everyday life but also in the future. How effective is a Twitter hashtag? How is Anita Sarkeesian’s resistance to cyber violence going to play out, and what can we understand about cyberspace through her battle with patriarchy online? Is cyberspace an arena of innovation and collaboration or violence and destruction? And ultimately, how is the relationship between technology and bodies going to be shaped in the future?

All of these are open-ended questions which allow a multitude of opinions and understandings to flourish which, in my opinion, need to be discussed. What I would argue here, therefore, is not just that all genders need to call out problems and social ills, but that we need to make blogging about them credible in all forums. My legitimacy in this space comes from the fact that I am writing about feminism in a blog about gender. But what about the harassment Anita Sarkeesian faces all the time? How many people would listen to me if I talked about gaming and sexual harassment somewhere else online? How effective is it to write something for a blog like this one — and who would engage with it? And finally, how do we disengage ourselves from technology in a world where we are constantly plugged in: bombarded with information, keeping up with our emails, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Stumbleupon, John Green vlogs, and online news?  In order not to end on a pessimistic note, I will argue that despite setbacks, we can now express ourselves on the Internet like never before and get people engaged with important issues. At least that’s my mission writing for Gender and the City! Food for thought as we get stuck into 2015.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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